While folks inside the beltline in Raleigh were parsing every rumor about the budget dance between House and Senate leaders, a new national report provided a stark reminder of just how out of touch the negotiators in the corner rooms of the Legislative Building are with many of the people they represent.
The 2014 Kids County Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation released this week ranks North Carolina 34th in the overall well-being of its children and 38th in their economic well-being, with 26 percent of kids living in poverty in the state in 2012.
It’s a startling number — more than one in four children in North Carolina live in families who can’t make ends meet — and it should have shaken the walls of the General Assembly, but it didn’t even prompt a comment from the folks running the House and Senate, the same folks trying to decide what programs to slash to pay for a teacher raise while corporations and millionaires prepare for another tax cut Jan. 1.
The report, as disturbing as it is, understates the problem of course. The federal poverty level is out of date and not even close to what it takes for a family to meet their basic needs — a family of four that earns just $24,000 a year is not living in poverty according to the guidelines.
But putting that aside, news that 26 percent of children are living in poverty several years into the alleged economic recovery in North Carolina and well into what Gov. Pat McCrory calls the “Carolina Comeback” should have caused at least a reassessment of the priorities at the General Assembly, but nobody blinked an eye.
Instead, the question now is how much the final budget will slash from education funding to give teachers a raise, how many vulnerable seniors will lose Medicaid coverage, and how long the waiting list will be for pre-kindergarten programs and day care subsidies.
And the folks currently running things in Raleigh are not only standing still while children and families suffer, they are making things worse.
Lawmakers have allowed the state Earned Income Tax Credit to expire that helped more than 900,000 low-wage workers and their families, a bad decision any time but disgraceful when last year’s tax plan gave millionaires a $10,000 break on average.
They have also refused to consider Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that would provide health care for 500,000 low income adults who are now uninsured, many with children who are part of their families living in poverty.
They have slashed unemployment benefits to the point that North Carolina now offers fewer weeks of benefits for workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own than any state in the country. The average monthly benefit was slashed by roughly $300 which could be the difference between buying food every day and making sure children have enough school supplies or forcing them to simply do without.
Lawmakers have ignored calls for basic work supports, like paid sick leave so an illness doesn’t mean losing pay or raising the minimum wage so people working 40 hours a week can have a chance to provide for their families.
Republican leaders have been spending a lot time lately pointing out North Carolina’s rankings on indexes of business climates and places to start a company. And those are interesting but how can anything be more important than making sure children have a chance to succeed without the crushing weight that family poverty places on their backs?
Almost as a bitterly ironic footnote, House leaders did do one thing this week that will directly impact children, especially ones in poverty. A “technical corrections” bill passed a committee that included a provision that would abolish the Child Fatality Task Force next year, a panel created with bipartisan support in the 1990s in response to the state’s woeful infant mortality rates.
The task force has made numerous recommendations that have resulted in legislation that has saved children’s lives. And now House leaders want to abolish it.
It’s too bad that no one publishes a comparison of how legislative leaders treat the low-income children in their state. That would be a ranking that the folks currently in charge in Raleigh would probably not circulate too widely, but it would speak volumes.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.